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A year after Startupland, where are the founders now?

Elise Whang of SNOBSWAP, a DC-based startup that last year was shown on the silver screen in Startupland, a documentary series showing the struggles of entrepreneurship

Participants in group yoga on a trip organized by The Trip Tribe, a DC startup

Part of the Startupland curriculum

The documentary has launched a related entrepreneurship curriculum

One year ago, a documentary series introduced the world to five D.C. entrepreneurs. Here's what happened next.
"When you make big decisions in life, you always have butterflies. I've come to learn that butterflies are a good thing. It means you're in the right place." –Marty Bauer, founder of RidePost, as quoted in startupland

startupland, the reality series that followed five first-time founders from the #DCTech entrepreneurial scene and the Fort incubator program, premiered just over one year ago, on March 13, 2014. The six-episode series showed the life of a startup founder without rose-colored glasses, showing the real sacrifices the five founders went through to pursue their dreams, all the while providing commentary and advice from experienced founders and mentors and explaining key concepts in founding a startup.

But what of those dreams a year later? Elevation DC caught up with four of the five startup founders (TrendPo founder J.D. Chang declined to be interviewed for this story),  to find out what's been happening in the startups since then.

For one thing, not one of the startups we talked to has gone under. "Is it above average for those companies to all still be operating over two years since the accelerator? Yes, it certainly is," said Jonathon Perrelli, founder of Fortify Ventures and co-creator, co-producer and executive producer of the documentary series, in an email. "This is in large part due to our selection criteria, where the companies were at the point of entering our program (much farther along than an 'idea') and is an nod/absolute praise to the founders and CEO's of the companies that were in the programs."

There's also news from startupland itself: a 14-week curriculum based on the documentary series designed for individual and institutional learners.

Despite all the excitement of being featured in a documentary series, all four founders are still doing one things: working hard on their respective businesses. And in their own way, each company is growing.

A handful of the companies have slightly pivoted since one year ago. SNOBSWAP, the online marketplace for "preloved" designer gear cofounded by Elise Whang, has refocused its business since appearing on the silver screen. The company was initially founded as a peer-to-peer marketplace, when one shopper could go to swap or buy another's Chanel bag at a fraction of the cost of getting one new.
"That keeps me up at night. You want to keep that momentum going."

Whang left a successful career in law and entered The Fort's second accelerator class to learn how to run a tech company. "There is no option to fail," she said, in startupland.

Since then, Whang changed her business model to "B2B2C," or "business-to-business-to-consumer."  In other words, instead of users buying from each other, they purchase from consignment shops that have partnered with the site. "We've refocused on consignment boutiques and on bringing them online." The result is that SNOBSWAP now has store partners in 22 states around the country and has one shop in Canada, which allows Whang and her team to test the waters of international expansion, a concept she wants to bring about "within the next two years." The company saw a million visits and 600,000 users in 2014.

SNOBSWAP also employs six people full-time and is expanding its business development team. "We need to be bringing more boutiques online," Whang says. "We have a waitlist of stores. That keeps me up at night. You want to keep that momentum going."

Similarly, RidePost, a company originally focusing on long-distance commuting, has pivoted to "focus exclusively on private networks. We're building private transportation networks for universities and organizations," founder Marty Bauer says.
"Startups take a long time—it's a long, winding path. But so far, so good."

For Bauer, participating in the Fort and startupland always meant a commute from his hometown of Greenville, S.C. (oddly appropriate for a company focusing on commuting and transportation). But this decision took a toll on Bauer, who gave a no-holds-barred description of bootstrapping in startupland, including not taking a salary, sharing living space with his three RidePost cofounders, "eating plenty of ramen and sleeping on plenty of couches. For the first year of our company, I spent over 100 nights on the road and not one night in a hotel."

Bauer says that 2014 was RidePost's best year yet in terms of usability and profitability. Though he won't give specifics, Bauer says that RidePost works with "quite a few" universities. "Startups take a long time—it's a long, winding path. But so far, so good."

Going forward, Bauer says that RidePost will "continue to solve the problems people need around transportation. And that's a good thing. Software as a whole and technology as a whole is a once-in-a-generation moment right now. There are so many things that are changing rapidly with software and technology. Being a software company, it's a really exciting time to do that. We have a lot of goals and ideas and ambitions and we want to continue to solve problems as we can. We're one small piece in a much bigger world."

Meanwhile, for other startupland alumni, some things haven't changed. 

The Trip Tribe is "doing the same thing we started doing" years ago, founder Dave Aidekman says.

The company plans and executes group trips for like-minded travelers. Members can search for and be notified about trips to destinations across the globe; yoga retreats are currently very popular on the site.

Prior to entering The Fort's accelerator, Aidekman worked in the White House and as part of the original Department of Homeland Security. The Trip Tribe, as Aidekman said in the series, developed as "we threw big, fun vacations for family and friends."

Word of his vacations spread, people wanted to join his email list, and he formed a successful LLC, which he operated for five years prior to seeking outside funding.

But now, the team of four is seven and the company has raised two seed rounds for an undisclosed amount.

And the number of trips the company is able to offer has risen dramatically. "At the time of startupland, we were offering one per month," Aidekman says. "Now, it's 15 to 20 per month, and that number is accelerating. We'll be adding a lot more per month later this year."

"We're still about giving the right group of people the right trip with the right leader to a great destination. I've [been] pleased with our consistency," says Aidekman.

Aidekman attributes The Trip Tribe's growth to having "good offerings….The customer growth comes from our trip leaders, and our customers spread the word. It's multi-level word-of-mouth." He also points to a partnership with a lifestyle media marketing company that has attracted members.

In the future, Aidekman wants to "make these vacations available to more and more people. We're doing [what we're doing] on a modest, start-up scale." He wants to grow and says he "wouldn't be surprised to find new challenges as we grow. We'd love to have those challenges, as opposed to the challenges of 18 months ago—just getting customers."

And LegCyte is a data analytics startup for public policy that was cofounded by Aneet Makin. At the time of startupland's premiere, the company was excited to be in an office space, instead of working out of coffee shops. 

Since startupland premiered, Makin and his cofounders have refocused on steadily building a customer base. "We're not a consumer-facing product," he says. "It's very much an… enterprise product, and we're selling to Fortune 500 [companies], law firms, lobby shops and things like that. We've been having pretty good success with that, considering that with law firms and large organizations, the sales cycle is a little longer than with other verticals."
"There is a lot of focus on raising money and raising money early...We spent a little bit of time buying into that." 

After its initial investment from Fortify, which was part of the company's participation in The Fort and in startupland, LegCyte has decided not to focus on raising capital, but rather to bootstrap "to gain the momentum we need," Makin says. The decision to bootstrap was not one he and his cofounder took lightly. "There is a lot of focus on raising money and raising money early. 'You're out there, you've got a product, now raise cash.' We spent a little bit of time buying into that before we took a step back and said, 'Is this really the right time for us to raise?' We decided to wait until it was really the right time for us."

LegCyte is cash-flow positive, and according to Makin, "having lots of success" with its core product. In the future, the company will use its technology to tackle data on the state and local levels, the regulatory process and "potentially internationally," although Makin says the latter is the lowest priority.

"Five years from now, we want to be the one-stop shop, almost like the LexisNexis of public policy and government," says Makin," basically bringing in as much information and data as we can from all levels of government [to] derive additional value for our customers."

startupland: the series and the curriculum
It's not just the startups themselves that have grown and changed since startupland premiered in March 2014. What was initially conceived as a documentary series (and is still available for download as such) has morphed into a full-length film and a teaching tool that executive producer Jonathon Perrelli sees as "inspiring entrepreneurs globally."

"The premiere at E Street seems like a lifetime ago," says Justin Gutwein, director of startupland, in an email. "So much has happened and changed in the past year. We partnered with the World Bank and the United Nations Foundation to screen startupland in over 50 cities around the globe and launched the entire series for streaming/download. It’s amazing to know that people, literally all over the world, have seen startupland. That is a really humbling feeling. My absolute favorite piece of media is a photo of a group in India projecting startupland onto a wall on a rooftop. It’s astounding."

Gutwein says that all the screenings led to feedback that roughly divided viewers into two camps, which he calls the "I want more!" and the "I want less!" camps.

For the "more" camp, the startupland team created more. Perrelli and Maxim Wheatley, startupland's associate producer, wrote a full, digital, 15-module online curriculum to accompany the documentary series. The startupland team then hired Miranda Lee to manage the curriculum platform and Lisa Mitchell to handle marketing and develop key partnerships.

The curriculum, which went live March 20, is built on Thinkific, an online learning platform, and uses the documentary series as a starting point. For individuals, "the biggest takeaway is that the curriculum as a whole is a very reflective piece in a very conversational tone," she says. "After every lesson, [students reflect], 'How do you feel about that? Is this right for you?' That's very different from what's on the market right now."

Gutwein says he is "fascinated" by the "less" camp. "People were so excited about how authentically startupland portrayed the entrepreneurial struggle, that they wanted to have their parents, partners, cousins, etc. watch it. However, they thought that something more condensed that doesn’t go as deep into concepts would be better for these individuals. This is what became the [75-minute] film."

startupland is also being reedited as a slightly longer feature film. "The documentary series is still available," says Mitchell. "The [feature] film cut is also available and is in the process of being reworked to capture some additional material. There are still screenings being scheduled all over the world."

"The entire concept of startupland continues to evolve," Mitchell continues. "Nothing is being taken away; we just keep adding additional, valuable components to it. This started out as a documentary idea and it has evolved into a great tool and learning platform. It’s been cool to see how that story has unfolded."

In five years, Perrelli says that "startupland will be in every country in the world--we need to sneak a copy into North Korea somehow," says Perrelli. "My hope is that entrepreneurs leverage the video series in conjunction with the curriculum to help kickstart businesses of all kinds. We have the vision for further developing the platform and who knows, maybe there will be a sequel."

Due to a reporting error, this article originally stated that Dave Aidekman worked on the Hill; actually, he worked in the White House. This article also originally misstated Jonathon Perrelli's titles; he is co-creator, co-producer, and executive producer of the documentary series, not just executive producer. Elevation DC regrets the errors.
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